Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Can agricultural research help eradicate famine?
Every day, we see images of refugees fleeing a drought-ridden Somalia, crowding into camps along the country’s borders, desperate for food and shelter to stay alive. Tens of thousands of people have already died in the region, livestock, essential to the wellbeing of the local populations, suffer the same fate. Yet, as more than half a million children teeter on the brink of starvation, we ask ourselves “what could we have done to prevent this?” And, even more importantly, “how can we prevent this from happening again?”
No matter how severe, droughts do not have to lead to famine. Droughts are natural events, famines are not. Famines happen when countries and regions are not equipped to deal with extremes in weather. This current famine results from an extended drought and political instability, but it also reflects the long term vulnerability to food insecurity that is endemic in the Horn of Africa. As Oxfam recently pointed out, food aid alone does not help people to withstand the next shock: “Much greater long-term investment is needed in food production and basic development to help people cope with poor rains and ensure that this is the last famine in the region.” We at the CGIAR, the world’s largest partnership of international agriculture research, could not agree more.
Recent research by our climate change, agriculture, and food security research program has identified future “hotspots” of climate vulnerability-- areas where climate change impacts on food security are expected to become increasingly severe by 2050. Not surprisingly, some of the same countries being affected by the current drought where identified in the report as “hotspots” for climate-induced food insecurity.
Meeting the challenges of ensuring food security for the world, especially those is more remote and marginal locations and the poor in both rural and urban locations, as well as averting future famines, require us to act with an urgency. We must develop new ways of thinking more holistically about natural resource and farmland management, as well as revitalized water management practices, and the development of drought-tolerant crop varieties and hardier livestock breeds. Investment in such research is highly cost-effective: for every US$1 dollar invested in international agricultural research, US$ 9 dollars worth of additional food is being produced in developing countries.
What more can we do to ensure our research helps avoid future famines?
Good research is not enough
Even the best agricultural research can only realize its potential if it is used on the ground. For this to happen, it must be delivered under a benign policy environment, into agricultural systems with sufficient infrastructure and access to viable and predictable markets, and with the extension support needed to secure farmer adoption. Because of this, we need to work closer with funders, local and regional governments, national research institutions, universities, non-governmental organizations, aid agencies, farmers, civil society organizations and private sector companies. Only by mobilizing such collective strength, can we find and deliver the effective solutions at the scale needed to avert future famines and food crises.
The way ahead: working in partnership for better research outcomes
The good news is that agricultural research finds itself in a new era of opportunity. Rapid scientific progress has been made in genetics, ecology and information technology, offering a multitude of new ways to improve agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability. The CGIAR is using the latest scientific approaches and technologies in a series of new global research programs aimed at improving food security and the sustainable management of the water, soil, and biodiversity that underpin agriculture in the world’s poorest countries.
What is more, the reformed structure of the CGIAR opens the door for stronger collaboration and partnership with other research and development actors. The 11 new research programs approved in the last year, bring together the broadest possible range of organisations, combining the efforts of multiple CGIAR centres with those of many and diverse partners from across the research and development spectrum. Working in partnership on such a large scale, makes this new CGIAR effort unprecedented in terms of its size, scope and expected impact on development.
The work of the aid agencies is vital to provide the emergency aid that is desperately needed right now, but even aid agencies this time appeal for more to be done. We at CGIAR are doing our best to ensure that such famines never happen again. I was once told that the CGIAR is the best kept secret in agricultural research. We must make sure that our work remains a secret no longer, because agricultural research really is the key to better global food security and a sustainable, famine-free future.
Lloyd Le Page
Chief Executive Officer, CGIAR